Adventures in Roadkill

In Boulder we believe in doing good, for the environment, for our bodies, for others. Right? We believe in sustainability, we believe in “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” we believe in eating clean food, food that doesn’t suffer for our benefit. Right?

Lately, life has been providing me many opportunities to put my own beliefs and the credo which I feel surrounds me, to the test.

It was Friday morning, I had just dropped the kids at school and was heading home to catch up with paperwork, clean up the house, and get ready to leave for the weekend. I was driving along Baseline, near 30th, and something caught my eye. A large furry animal lying on the side of the road. I looked closer. Antlers! A male deer had apparently been hit by a car. A landscape crew was starting to gather around the animal.

I continued driving, but immediately my mind started to spin, to nag at me with questions and debate, “what will happen to that deer? probably get dragged off unceremoniously and put in a landfill. it’s so beautiful. i wish my students could see it. what if it just got hit and the meat is still good? at least coyotes should be able to eat it. i hope it didn’t suffer. how can you just leave it there? what would i do with it? it’s right on a main road. is it legal? could i get in trouble? could i get it to a place where it can finish its cycle of life? it’s too heavy. maybe the landscapers could help me. you’re crazy, just go home and do your work. why are you always making things harder than they need to be? what are you trying to prove? what if you got in trouble? front page headlines, fines, embarrassment. how can you let it go to waste? how can you choose mundane house and work tasks over a new life experience and learning?”

By the time I got home, I knew I had to go back. I was nervous and my mind was still nagging at me but my body was moving around, gathering a cooler, tarp, hunting knife, and saw. I texted my husband to get his opinion, since he would also be affected if I got caught. “you could go to jail. who would pick up the kids? who would take over your classes?” By the time his response came back, I was already in it and had forgotten about my phone.

I arrived and surveyed the scene. The landscapers had moved the deer off the road, but they were not nearby, as I could hear blowers and mowers faintly humming in the distance. There was also no one home to help. I looked at the deer and watched the cars driving by. To my surprise, not one driver in ten or so cars, even on the same side of the road, looked over to see me or the deer.

I suddenly felt very sad, looking at the beautiful young buck in the prime of his life, imagining his confusion as he started across the street and was struck by this giant flying hunk of metal. I got down close to his face and noticed his perfect black nose, still moist, his long lashes and still shiny big brown eyes, his giant soft ears with their perfect shading for camouflage and seashell-pink insides. In his mouth, his tongue was slightly curled around a leaf he had just plucked but hadn’t had time to eat.

All I could think of was, “I’m sorry.” Even as the feeling overtook me, I felt overwhelmed by its inadequacy and all the things I was actually apologizing for. The taking of land and building of fences that have blocked animals movements in search of food and safety, the roads that now spider web across even the most wild places, and the deadly cars that no amount of experience can prepare animals that have evolved to survive very different predators.

I didn’t want this animal’s life and death to be in vain. At the very least I could make sure the deer’s body benefitted other wildlife. I could use the deer’s head to teach students about how muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone are joined, how the lens and optic nerve are like a camera that sends images to the brain, and how all of the sense organs, from the ears and eyes to the nose, tongue and whiskers,  are beautifully adapted for survival.

While I was thinking these thoughts and feeling strongly about what I should do, I also realized that others might not see it the same way, as they drove by and saw me bending over the deer’s body. I didn’t think I could lift the whole deer, but I could hardly cut it up right there on the main road. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of intentional effort to become comfortable with raising and killing the few animals I have for food, and I still have feelings of guilt and nausea at ending a life and turning it into meat.  When I started raising animals for food a few years ago, I thought I’d be eating lots of delicious meat and wouldn’t feel guilty because the animals had a good life and a quick death. The reality is, I eat a lot less meat now.

If it’s so hard to see the death or blood of an animal that’s lived a good life and had a relatively quick death, why do we subject ourselves to so much graphic gore and death in movies, video games and on the news? In Boulder, it’s so great that so many people want to know that the animals they eat had good living conditions. I’m not saying everyone needs to raise or hunt their own meat, but why do so many people who eat meat find it so distasteful?  I find that even today, even in Boulder, with so much awareness around what and how we eat, that people are still often shocked at the thought that I would be willing to kill and butcher an animal myself rather than subject it to the confusing and potentially painful trip to a processing plant. 

I decided to heft the body to see if perhaps I could manage it. Ugh. Heavy. I tried to drag it by the antlers and managed to move it a few feet. Somehow, I decided to just go for it and that’s when my adrenaline kicked in.  I backed the car right up to the deer, ran around the back, heaved the body upright by the antlers, leaned it against the bumper, then picked up the rear and with all my might, heaved the whole body into the back and slammed the rear door closed. Before I knew it, I was back in the driver’s seat. I couldn’t believe how fast it all happened, probably 7 or 8 minutes total.

Driving away, the smell of deer poop and gas hit me and I started feeling surreal and guilty, like something out of the movie Fargo. “what did you just do? you have a  potentially illegal dead body in your car! this does not look good. you’re going to jail.” Then I got a red light. I looked in my rearview mirror and realized one hoofed leg had sprung up and was sticking up in the rear window, like a kidnapped person trying to signal for help. A middle-aged couple in a Subaru pulled up right behind me and started staring right at the leg. “oh no, don’t talk about it, don’t point. why aren’t you saying anything, don’t you see that deer leg? maybe they’ll think it’s a Christmas yard sculpture or something. c’mon light!” Finally the light changed and I drove on slowly, carefully, not wanting to attract any attention. I looked down at my speedometer and realized I was going 30 in a 50 and cars were bunching up behind me. “so this is how criminals get caught,” I thought. I turned onto my street and was relieved that the Subaru kept going.

I got home and must have still been running on adrenaline, because in a flash I had that deer out of the car and in the far back of the yard by the creek and then had the head and meat off and had dragged the rest of the still incredibly heavy body across the freezing, waist-high creek to leave for the coyotes. Once I had everything (including myself) cleaned up and put away, meat wrapped and tucked into the garage freezer along with the head (to dissect with my older students), I sat down and took a deep breath. I suddenly remembered texting my husband and looked at my phone, where I found 5 texts of increasing urgency. “You’re crazy. Don’t do it. You could get in serious trouble. It’s not worth it. Don’t be that crazy woman people will be talking about. Imagine what this could do to your family. DON’T DO IT!” I sent him a text apologizing that I’d been away from my phone and attached a picture of the deer’s head in the cooler.

The rest of that day, I felt a little sick to my stomach and didn’t eat much, especially not meat. I thought, “Maybe I’ll finally become a vegetarian.” But the next day, my curiosity, and love of meat, got the better of me. I pulled out one of the back straps (the long round muscles that run along the spine, the best meat, where filet mignon steaks come from) and cut off a few thin pieces. I put some butter in a cast iron pan, sprinkled some truffle-flavored salt on top and seared the pieces briefly. Fully prepared for the meat to taste bad, I took a tiny taste and then nearly fell on the floor. My mouth came alive and melted all at the same time. The fine-grained, smooth texture contrasted with the rich, dark, lean taste of the venison. I savored about five more pieces, convinced it was the best thing I’d ever eaten and wishing I had my husband and five best friends there to share it with. I have since shared it with a few people and they agree it is beyond delicious.

And so began my adventures in roadkill. I have since found out that it is completely within my legal rights as a citizen to take advantage of meat from roadkill, I just have to call the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Dept. if I find another one and they will give me permission to take it.

I prepped for a lesson with my older students to dissect the eyes, tongue and trachea of the deer. They loved it and I was amazed at how much you can learn by taking something apart and examining all the parts. A few of the highlights were:
1. realizing that the lens of the eye actually magnified the letters on my watch
2. the inside of a deer’s cheek has all these bumpy projections
3. the inside of the sinus was super convoluted and full of blood-infused tissue (for an amazing sense of smell, we guessed), and
4. the students were way more grossed out by the giant engorged tick we found than any of the above-mentioned things!

After a whole lot of work cleaning it, the skull turned out really cool and I think of it as a reminder of the deer’s life and the whole experience during which we felt like we got to know the deer. 

I also put out my wildlife camera and caught multiple coyotes, ravens, magpies, and a couple of neighborhood dogs, eating the remaining deer meat. I’ll admit it, I feel pretty proud of myself.

I’m still not caught up with my paperwork and my house isn’t that clean, but I wouldn’t give up this opportunity for anything. I hope you’ll call me if you see or hear about a deer or elk hit by a car!

PS if you’re wondering how I knew how to even begin to deal with this deer, I have been interested in hunting for quite a few years and had a hunter friend teach me how to gut and skin a deer.

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